Modern astronomers watch the universe on instruments Galileo never imagined, but their reasons for watching them remain the same.
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I walked outside and stopped as suddenly as if I’d hit a wall. If was absolutely dark. I knew there was a paved road in front of me and a hill immediately beyond the road. Slightly to my left would be the steep metal staircase that led up the hill to the observatory dome. The dome, at least as tall as a ten-story building, was painted a brilliant white and I had expected to see it glowing on top of the hill like some official monument. But I couldn’t see the dome at all, or the hill, or the stairs, or the road, or my hand, even when I held it so close to my eyes I could feel my breath on my palm.
Determined nevertheless to make my way up to the dome, I crept forward step by step, intending to walk straight ahead until I reached the hill, then work to the left slowly until I found the steps. I managed to do that and by the time I had gotten half way up the steps, guiding my way by the handrail, my eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the night and I could see the dome near the head of the stairs, a huge, pale form surrounded by darkness. I climbed the rest of the stairs and, having done that, felt secure enough to pause for a moment before going into the observatory.
It was early September and most of Texas was still suffering through heavy, humid nights. McDonald Observatory, however, sits at the top of Mount Locke, a 6800-foot peak in the Davis Mountains. By now, about 10 p.m., it was turning slightly cold. Arms crossed over my chest, I hugged my jacket closer to me and looked out over the long valley that begins at the foot of the mountain and extends twenty or thirty miles to another range of mountains. There was not a single light anywhere, not even a solitary ranch house or wayward automobile. El Paso, the nearest city, was 160 miles to the northwest; the nearest settlement was Fort Davis, fifteen miles away; but its lights, what there were of them, were hidden behind one of the minor hills that make up the valley floor. This isolation, away from the glare of neon and headlights and streetlamps which can obscure the stars, was one reason this site was chosen for the observatory 43 years ago. Fortunately for the astronomers the country is still as empty and remote as it was
then. The mountain is high enough to be above much of the earth’s atmosphere yet low enough not to be bothered with snow and ice. Also this region has very little rainfall, so that astronomers can count on more than 200 clear nights a year.
I looked up at the sky. City dwellers, of course, always forget how many stars it’s possible to see in the country, but that night the heavens had called out the reserves to put on a special show. The stars were so thick and bright they seemed the natural order of things and the darkness between them the exception. I had recently read that, on the average, stars are 30 trillion miles apart. Thinking about that distance while seeing these thousands and thousands of stars—they were like huge handfuls of tiny dice tossed out on a black felt table—I found myself once again in awe of a concept that astronomy books always dwell on and that always leaves me a little uncomfortable: The Vastness of the Universe.
Astronomers peer into that Vastness wondering what it is and how it came to be. The Vastness is, of course, indifferent to all that; but mankind is not. Every major astronomical discovery seems to emphasize our lack of importance in the whole scheme of things. Four hundred years ago Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo showed that the earth was not at the center of the universe but revolved around the sun. Fifty years ago Harlow Shapley and R. J. Trumpler proved that our solar system is not even at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, but in one of the galaxy’s obscure, dimly lit spiral arms. And there are millions, billions of other galaxies. We are not the title of the universal book, after all, but a footnote on one of its back pages. We do have, however, the ability and the need to decipher at least some of the pages. That deciphering began with ancient stargazers millenniums ago and here at McDonald it is still going on.
Awed now and a little chilly, I walked through the dome’s back door into a well-equipped machine shop. A machinist was cutting a part for an electrical assembly that a group of scientists desperately needed for the telescope upstairs. I pointed to the flashlight standing face down on his workbench and said, “I wish somebody had warned me to bring one of those.”
“This isn’t my own flashlight,” the machinist said. “They’re kept in a drawer down there in the kitchen. Look upstairs. There’s usually a few extra around.” Later I would discover that caches of flashlights were hidden in various places in every building on the mountain. None of the roads and footpaths on the mountain are lighted. It wouldn’t make sense to come this far to escape civilization’s lights only to spoil everything with your own. Astronomers, when they walk at night, carry a flashlight which they point straight down. The light measuring instruments of modern telescopes are so sensitive that a flashlight beam across the sight might register as some distant stellar explosion.
I walked across the machine shop to an elevator and pressed the button for five. The first three floors had offices, laboratories, a small visitor center, a large computer room, and the machine shop I’d just walked through. The elevator didn’t have a button marked four. That floor, a labyrinth of staircases and oddly shaped rooms, was filled with electronic equipment which is linked to the telescope to analyze light from the stars. When the elevator reached what would be the fourth floor its light went out automatically and remained out during the brief ascent to the fifth floor, another guard against unwanted light spoiling observation.
Tonight, however, that precaution wasn’t really necessary since all the lights inside the dome were lit. A small group of astronomers, engineers, technicians, and computer programmers were frantically working on the elaborate new instrument for which the machinist was cutting parts. They had attached it to the side of the telescope where it resembled and was in roughly the same proportions as a bloated tick on the long, thin body of a dachshund. The instrument was supposed to be ready for use tonight.
I walked over to Liz Bozyan, a graduate student in astronomy whose current project depended on the new instrument. “Are they getting close?” I asked her.
“Closer,” she said. She was wearing a dark blue Yale sweatshirt and blue jeans. She stood with her hands in her front pockets and her elbows locked.
“When, do you think?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Sometime tonight. We’ve got to use it after it starts working so we’re going to be up all night anyway. Think you can make it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Liz laughed. For some reason it had never occurred to me that astronomers have to stay up all night.
I had arrived at the observatory early that afternoon after an uneventful plane ride from Austin to Marfa. On the same plane were Liz and a short, very dark man with black hair plastered down on his head. I found out later he was a world-renowned expert in optics who traveled from observatory to observatory installing or repairing telescopes. He kept very much to himself during his stay, a shy man made even shyer because he was self-conscious about his thick French accent. During the next five days I would see him only at meals, where he seldom talked, or very late at night in the observatory library. There he would sit in dim light surrounded by notebooks filled with measurements and computations, his pocket calculator close at hand, his black hair now mussed and shooting at odd angles from his head, as he tried to figure what minute adjustments should be made in the observatory’s telescopes.
After our plane landed at Marfa, a car from the observatory drove the three of us through Fort Davis and on to the observatory, a trip of 35 miles. There are five different telescopes at McDonald, four optical and one radio. From the road, several miles from the base of the mountain, I could see the brilliant white domes of the telescopes around the peak of the mountain. They looked like thick, stout bottles of roll-on deodorant with a zipper sewn from the top to the bottom edge of the ball. The radio telescope was off to one side and slightly lower than the others, but the four optical telescopes were bunched together and looked like a family. Two very large telescopes, one somewhat bigger than the other, waited at the top of the mountain like watchful parents, while a little farther down the mountain their two smaller offspring stood in the sunlight.
At the top of the mountain we were let out at a long, narrow building officially called the Transient Quarters but colloquially known as the TQ. Liz had brought with her several boxes of file cards and a thick stack of computer readouts in blue covers. She left them in the pile with the rest of our luggage until a man of about 35 with a round, red face came in. After only perfunctory greetings, the two of them sat down at a table, she fetched her file cards, and they began to discuss the work they wanted to do that night. The man was wearing a burgundy sweater, wheat-colored jeans, white socks, and sneakers. I would see him every day for the next five days and these were the only clothes he ever wore. He worked consistently during that time and frequently stayed up all night, but somehow his outfit never got dirty or even wrinkled, his sneakers stayed almost as white as when they were bought, and the white shirt beneath his sweater never came untucked, even in back.
Normally such ethereal immunity to dirt and sweat would turn me against someone just on principle. But in this man’s case that dapper sweater and those ever-clean jeans became a symbol to me of the best parts of his character. His name was Paul Rybski and he was the head scientist of the Faint Object Area Photometry and Spectroscopy Project, the group which was attaching that complicated instrument to the telescope. Though the final responsibility for the project was his, though he was directing the work of about eight people, though representatives from the Air Force (who financed the project) were watching over his shoulder, he managed to maintain the same air of benign concentration through a myriad of delays, hassles, and hang-ups. I saw him late one night standing off away from the group around the telescope. He was waiting for yet another malfunctioning part to be rewired and as he stood, shirttail in and sneakers neatly laced, he gulped coffee from a plastic cup and his normally red, innocent face looked pale, his eyes dull and bleary. I thought, “This is it. He’s going to crater.” The part arrived, Paul went efficiently back to work, and that was when I stopped worrying about his imperviousness to dirt.
Paul’s project was what brought Liz to McDonald. Her interest is in radio astronomy, and normally she works at UT’s radio observatory not far from Marfa. Radio astronomy began in 1931 when Karl Jansky, an engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories, published his discovery that radio waves were present in outer space. Now it is known that many bodies in space—from Jupiter to faint, distant stars to large clouds of molecules floating in the void—emit radio waves. Radio astronomers monitor and analyze these waves just as optical astronomers monitor and analyze light waves. In the past it had not been possible to locate the precise source of many of the radio waves, particularly those that arrive here from great distances. But recently radio astronomers have learned how to locate radio sources much more accurately. Liz’s card file contained hundreds of radio sources, many from objects so faint they could not be seen even on the most detailed maps of the sky. She wanted, among other things, to try to find those objects by using the instrument the Faint Object group was attaching to the telescope.
This instrument was based on a design developed by Joseph Wampler of the Lick Observatory in California. It employed light intensifiers which worked on the same principle as the light intensifiers used in night combat in Viet Nam. The light from the telescope was intensified—made brighter—in three stages. The last stage gave the image a slightly longer life than usual so that a special television camera could photo graph it. The astronomer would then observe the image on a small television screen, rather than through an eyepiece. At the same time the computer would electronically scan the television image and immediately transform it into numerical data the astronomer could analyze later. They hoped this system would reveal stars that were so faint they couldn’t be seen any other way.
That Liz and Paul should begin discussing work almost the moment she arrived showed admirable dedication, but that was not, as it turns out, unusual. Astronomers are in a bit of a bind because there are many more of them than there are telescopes. Observing time is reserved night by night, often for months in advance. Away from the observatory they do whatever preparatory work they can. At the observatory they usually spend the night at the telescope and sleep from dawn to noon. In the afternoon they do a preliminary analysis of the data from the night before and make last-minute changes in their viewing plan for the coming night. They may relax a little between dinner and nightfall but the steady tension of their work doesn’t relent even then.
The astronomer is a slave to the objects of his study. He can see them only at night and, as the heavens shift and the earth revolves around the sun, all the stars and planets regularly come into view and disappear from view so that the astronomer may observe particular objects only on certain nights. He may not rearrange the heavens in order to repeat an observation or to check another astronomer’s findings. Things do get checked eventually but in the meantime astronomers rely on the personal reputations of their colleagues. For one astronomer to say about another, “He has a tendency to be right” is a high accolade; it means “I believe in his data because I believe in him.”
The rooms and routine of the TQ are designed to aid the astronomers’ nocturnal routine. Four meals a day are served, the fourth being a night lunch which is ready at 11:30 p.m. The kitchen will prepare a breakfast at any meal; it is not unusual at noon to see more people eating bacon and eggs than lunch. The rooms are as bare and anonymous as the Standard American motel rooms they were patterned after, except they have no telephone or television. What they do have is a small electric alarm clock with Property of the University of Texas stamped on the top. The beds are not made up each day and if the astronomer wants his sheets changed, he must do it himself. Around the window is a black window shade inside a black metal frame. It seals out daylight so the astronomer can sleep and seals in artificial light so the lights from the TQ don’t disturb other astronomer’s observations.
For that matter, there is little on the mountain to disturb an astronomer in any way whatsoever. The temptations of the world are so lacking that by the third day I had stopped carrying money.
I had already bought all the souvenir postcards, books on astronomy, and star maps I thought I needed at the small McDonald Observatory visitor center. After that, unless you were fond of paying a quarter to watch a tall machine produce a can of Coke, there was nothing else to buy. The nearest store was in Fort Davis, fifteen miles away; the nearest movie theater, in Alpine, forty miles away.
These distances are not so bothersome to astronomers, but they are important constants in the lives of the families who live on the mountain. Only one permanent resident is an astronomer and he will soon be leaving. The rest are support personnel ranging from the superintendent of the observatory to custodians. There are also a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, two electrical technicians, a machinist, an optical technician, a draftswoman, nine night assistants who help the astronomers in the mechanical operation of the large telescopes, a part-time librarian, two full-time secretaries, a tour guide, twelve general maintenance people, and five who run the TQ. This comes to about 40 people.
As a rule the nontechnical staff live in Fort Davis or Alpine and the technical staff live in a group of fifteen University-owned houses at the foot of the mountain. These are large, four-bedroom ranch-style houses with a number of sliding glass doors and porches. An employee may rent one for ten percent of his salary provided he agrees to remain on call 24 hours a day.
The houses are less than a year old. Their newness and their design give the neighborhood a distinctly suburban feel, rather like Richardson, say, where many of the residents work in scientific or technical jobs similar to the jobs people do on the mountain. McDonald’s suburbanites, however, must learn to do their shopping just once or twice a month. They buy food in Fort Davis. An order phoned in in the morning will be delivered that afternoon by the school bus which always stops at the grocery on its way back. For more serious shopping they travel to Alpine or else drive to El Paso where they run down long lists of things they need and, the biggest luxury of all, have a meal at a restaurant.
Most people, however, see these inconveniences as only that. They like the isolation of life on the mountain, and, just as other suburbanites, say they like where they live because it’s safe, there’s no crime, they like their neighbors, and they don’t have to worry about their kids. The librarian told me that she has to remind herself to look at papers and remember that oh, yes, there are wars going on and strikes and political scandals. An exploding star billions of miles away might cause them to work three days straight aiding an astronomer observing it; whereas a change of government in Portugal, or in Washington, affects them hardly at all.
The one real hazard for the people who live on the mountain is a disease called mountain fever, a feeling of claustrophobia that comes from living and working in isolation. The cure is to leave the mountain for a few days in favor of El Paso or Austin or Alpine or just someplace else, and every few months people will take that cure.
Of the four optical telescopes at McDonald, the newest and largest is the 107-inch reflector; the oldest has an 82-inch reflector, and the other two, used mostly by graduate students, have reflectors of 36 and 30 inches. A reflector is a large piece of glass coated with aluminum to make a mirror. Ordinary telescopes, the kind favored by ships captains, are refractors which admit light through a lens. Since glass lenses act as a prism and bend some colors of light more than others, the resulting images are not precise enough for astronomers. The reflecting telescopes—which bounce the light from mirror to mirror—do not bend light and therefore produce more nearly perfect images.
The Faint Object Project had chosen to use the 107-inch telescope. Paul and the engineers and scientists on the project were working around the base of the telescope like beavers around a pine. That telescope—almost 36 feet long, weighing 160 tons—was a thick steel tube welded together in sections. It was mounted on a round metal beam which in turn rested at an angle of about 45 degrees on two thick cement pillars. Two concealed sets of gears move the telescope to point at any spot in the sky. For balance an immense counterweight, approximately seven feet square, rode on the round beam opposite the telescope. The beam, the telescope, and the counterweight were all painted that familiar, pale, institutional green.
The room that held the telescope was perfectly round. Arching over it, was the dome. Painted pale blue, it made all of us, and the telescope, too, seem like we were inside a giant robin’s egg waiting to hatch. Two yellow steel beams lined the slit in the dome. Parallel to them were the runners for a black canvas curtain that could be raised and lowered to seal all the slit except for the place the telescope was looking through. So that the telescope could be pointed in any direction, this huge dome revolved; that was something I thought would be worth a long night to see.
And the night did wear on. The final testing of the new instrument kept getting held up by the kind of delays that seem most inevitable when they are most frustrating—a piece didn’t fit and had to be remade, tubing needed to be wrapped with tape, wires got crossed, parts got switched. Finally, about 1:30, more or less to everyone’s amazement, everything had been put, or had fallen, into place. All that remained were a few tests to make sure the machine was working properly before it would be time to crank up the telescope and open the dome.
Paul turned out the lights for the tests. The fifteen of us—scientists, Air Force observers, technicians, and myself—crowded into the narrow computer room just off the dome floor where the controls for the instrument and the television monitor were assembled. Each test either revealed no problems at all or only minor ones that were solved with a minimum of effort. The process was slow and painstaking. Paul had to thread his way from the controls in the computer room through the crowded group of observers back out to the floor to adjust the machine, then retrace his steps back to the controls. “Excuse me,” he said politely. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” The only light in the room was a blue haze from the television monitor that made everyone’s face look ghostly. The room soon stank of cigarettes and stale coffee. It was nearly 2:30 before the computer was working in proper conjunction with the camera and the system produced a clear image on the television screen.
“Well,” Paul said, “that’s it.” He paused for a moment, looking at us, and didn’t say anything. Then with a sweep of his hand he looked straight up and said, “Let’s open the dome!”
At last! But at that very moment, as if on cue, the phone rang. One of the electrical engineers answered it and after a short conversation hung up disgustedly. “Wait, everybody,” he said. “They’re shutting down at the eighty-two inch. The humidity’s too high.”
It was a dejected group that walked outside and saw that, yes, the dew was heavy enough to be dripping off the dome. Observation was impossible. Most went to the TQ to drink coffee and wait to see if the humidity would drop. Paul stayed on the dome floor to work on the machine. Hours later, just before dawn, they opened the dome and the machine worked perfectly. When the telescope was aimed at one of Liz’s radio sources, where the most detailed and recent map of the sky showed nothing at all, the television screen revealed a star.
That telephone call had come from Rob Robinson, a young astronomer who was not only plagued by humidity that night but was also wrestling with demons of his own.
Two weeks earlier, on August 29, he’d had his thirtieth birthday. At his home in Austin his wife had made him a special dinner and they drank two bottles of wine between them. Afterward it was with a full belly and a pleasantly fuzzy, wine-clouded mind that Rob had gone to bed at 11, a time so early by his normal schedule that it was something like bedding down in midafternoon. He decided he deserved the indulgence. While the dinner had been fine, the occasion of his birthday had not been completely joyous. Although his career was well underway and he had discovered a stellar phenomenon of some importance, it depressed him to be growing so undeniably older. Tonight he wanted just to eat a better meal than his slim budget normally allowed, drink enough to make him drowsy, go to bed early, sleep soundly, and forget everything for a while. He had been in bed less than half an hour when the first call came.
Not long before, halfway around the world, a Japanese youngster who enjoyed looking at the stars noticed one burning much more brightly than it usually did. His call to a local observatory made him the first person in the world to spot the phenomenon, now named Nova Cygni 1975. But in the next hour many other astronomers, both amateur and professional, saw it too and began calling friends and professional colleagues to tell them about it. It was probably a nova, a star that periodically burns many times more brightly than normal. But it could be a supernova, a star that suddenly explodes with the force of innumerable nuclear bombs. Astronomers think that such explosions are the final, cataclysmic event in the life of a star. Novae, whose brilliance is not due to a simple explosion, are rare enough; but supernovae are extremely rare. In most galaxies a supernova appears only once every 50 to 200 years. Modern telescopes can observe enough galaxies that astronomers can see several supernovae each year. But the star that had suddenly flared up that night was in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The last one here was in 1604. There had been another one in 1572 but before that the most recent was in 1054. If this new appearance was a nova, it would be the celestial event of the decade; if it were a supernova, it would be the event of the millennium.
Rob Robinson’s special field of study is novae, but… not tonight. There are times when concentrating alternately on one’s age and one’s evening meal is more important than the event of the decade or even of the millennium. He answered the first telephone call and the subsequent ones, dragging his long, slightly stooped, boney frame out of bed each time, fumbling for his glasses, fumbling for another cigarette from one of that day’s several packs, and mumbled into the receiver, “No, I don’t know what it is… don’t know what it means… don’t know where it is… no, don’t think I can come see it tonight.” Even if the whole sky were exploding, Rob would have stayed in bed. He wanted to sleep and finally did.
But the next night he took a kinder view of the new phenomenon. In another two weeks he would be going out to McDonald Observatory for several nights of observing. He wouldn’t be looking at this new star in particular but at stars much like it. As he thought about the new nova or supernova, whichever it would turn out to be, his scientific side gave way to his unscientific, or rather his ascientific, side. The event, after all, had coincided with his birthday. Maybe, he thought only half seriously, this was a good omen. Omens, portents, sky signs—astronomers scoff at such notions. But he yielded to the temptation jokingly, secretly, just this once. He began to look forward to his time at the observatory with enthusiasm.
However, for several nights clouds were in the way; and then last night, when everything had looked so clear, the dew set in. But the next night the sky looked clear early in the evening and Rob walked toward the telescope with his hopes renewed.
Rob was working with the 82-inch telescope. It is the oldest telescope on Mount Locke and was the second largest in the world from when it was built in 1938 until 1948. Unfailingly I heard astronomers describe the newer 107 inch as “headstrong” or as an “obstreperous youngster” while they referred to the 82-inch with real affection as a “fine old lady.” This telescope had produced many important discoveries, including the discovery of the moons of Neptune and Uranus. It looked friendlier, even to me, and had an air of having, if this makes sense to say about a telescope, seen it all. It was black, like a telescope is supposed to be, instead of that institutional green; the floor of its dome was steel plate rather than linoleum; and the desks around it were wood rather than gray metal.
When I looked in on Rob he was just beginning his observations. Each telescope has a computer terminal which will retrieve from the computer memory the position of any heavenly body at any given time. Rob typed in the star he wanted to observe, one named G207-9, and the computer immediately printed out the star’s position in the sky. Rob then went into a small control room just off the dome floor to check his observing equipment. The night assistant, standing at the automatic control panel at one edge of the moveable floor, raised the telescope and rotated the dome to place the slit in the proper position. The dome groaned and creaked like an elderly dame with arthritis, and it occurred to me that these sounds might be the modern equivalent of the music of the spheres.
Rob wanted to observe G207-9 because it is a star of a particular class that Robinson and a graduate student John McGraw have named pulsating white dwarfs. Only eight are known, of which Robinson and McGraw discovered four and confirmed two others. The surveying part of the project was now over and Rob was going back to observe more closely those eight objects.
White dwarf is actually a technical name for a particular kind of heavenly body. White dwarfs are not completely understood but they are technically described as “degenerate matter,” what remains while a star is burning itself out. At this stage the remaining matter, mostly liquid helium, has collapsed in on itself, become very dense, and shrunk to planet size—an object, in other words, with the mass of the sun but the size of the earth.
If a white dwarf is a part of a binary star system—two stars that are locked together by their gravitational attraction—the result is occasionally a nova. Binary stars revolve around each other; when the dwarf gets close enough its gravity may pull clouds of hydrogen off the surface of the other star. When these clouds hit the cooling, but still extremely hot, surface of the dwarf, the result is the nuclear equivalent of throwing gasoline on a hot cinder. The hydrogen burns and the white dwarf looks brighter. Thus, a nova.
But a pulsating white dwarf is another matter. As little as a year ago the idea would have seemed preposterous. White dwarfs, after all, are dying stars and shouldn’t show any signs of activity, shouldn’t do anything but glow as they cool. But the ones Rob and John McGraw have found change luminosity at rates that vary from every 200 to every 1000 seconds. Their task was to find out why.
However romantic the heavens might be, the only way to solve their mysteries is through dogged perseverance. Rob’s work that night, in its steady repetition of routine tasks, was more typical than the efforts of the Faint Objects Group. He never looked through his telescope except to check that it was still trained on the right star. Instead, at the base of the telescope he had attached a photomultiplier, an instrument that is about a thousand times more sensitive to light than a photographic plate. An elaborate series of cables coming out of the photomultiplier like the tentacles of a squid connected to a computer in the control room. The computer registered the luminosity of G207-9 at ten-second intervals, transferring the information simultaneously to a typed sheet, to a punched tape, and onto a screen in the form of a graph.
Once he had fixed the telescope on the star and gotten the computer working properly, Rob simply watched the screen in the control room in case anything unusual should happen. Every ten minutes, red flashlight in hand, he went back into the dome, climbed a set of moveable wooden stairs up to the raised floor where he looked very quickly through the eyepiece of the telescope to be certain the star was still locked in the cross hairs. Between checks, while he watched the computer screen, he smoked cigarettes and drank coffee.
All the lights on the dome floor were out and in the sparsely furnished control room there were only three faint red lights, one over each of the two desks and one over the computer terminal. They lit the room with a very dim, shadowy red glow that would be perfect for a bordello. The only sound besides our talking was the chug, chug of the computer terminal printing, every ten seconds, the luminosity of the star.
During one of Rob’s periodic checks I looked through the eyepiece myself. Looking at the planets through a large telescope is spectacular since planets have beautiful colors. Jupiter, for instance, has horizontal stripes which vary from white to pale yellow to a darker reddish brown. Saturn, though lighter, is similarly colored and Mars is its legendary red. But stars appear only as points of light even through the most powerful telescopes. I looked for a long time expecting… something.
It was the only chance of my life to see the pulsating white dwarf G207-9 which is invisible to the naked eye, but the only thing I learned was why astronomers look at their computer readouts rather than the stars. The readouts are more interesting.
Since professional astronomers plan their observing time so carefully, it is generally amateur astronomers, whose pleasure is scanning the skies, who discover the unexpected heavenly events. Astronomy is therefore one science where amateurs can still make important contributions. Generally a professional astronomer looks at the sky only to check the weather.
Rob had wanted to observe G207-9 for four or five hours, but after only an hour and a half the screen showed a strange diminishing in the light. Rob went out to check the telescope. “Clouds,” he said. “Damn.”
There is a catwalk that runs clear around the outside of the dome. Rob opened the door that led there and I followed him out. “The whole place is clouding over,” he said. He paced around the dome. The metal catwalk made loud, hollow tones beneath his feet. I had to walk fast to keep up with him. “Clouds, clouds, clouds,” he said. “This is the worst observing run I’ve had in two years.” It was as if the heavens had played a cruel joke by producing the nova on his birthday to give him hope, only to dash that hope with clouds.
Finally he stopped near the door, leaned back against the dome, and lit a cigarette. Above us the clouds were thickening rapidly and it began to look threatening. Rob puffed at his cigarette angrily. More time wasted. The next time he got back to the observatory he would still be where he was when the present trip began. The night was cold and Rob stared down at his feet and hunched his shoulders against the chill. I had asked him earlier why he had become an astronomer and he had answered that he had long had an interest in religion and the inner soul, but had come to the conclusion that the best way to find what was inside was to spend his time looking as far outside as possible. But that night, just thirty, with clouds overhead, in was the only way he was looking.